Is nanotechnology hazardous to your health?

Dec. 14, 2006
In less than a decade, sales of manufactured goods incorporating nanotechnology are predicted to reach $2.6 trillion annually.

Andrew Maynard
Chief Science Advisor
Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars
Washington, D.C.

Today, there are over 300 nanotechnology-based consumer products on the market, ranging from computer chips to automobile parts, from clothing to cosmetics, to dietary supplements ( consumerproducts). By 2015, over 2 million workers are expected to be making these and other nanotechnology products.

Unfortunately, little is known about the potential risks nanotechnology poses to workers and end users. Because nanotechnology is a way of doing or making things rather than a discrete technology, there will never be a one-solution-fits-all approach to workplace safety. That is why the federal government should invest at least $100 million over two years in targeted risk research — nearly five times more than the estimated $11 million per year currently being spent. Doing so would begin to fill in knowledge gaps and lay a strong, science-based foundation for safe nanotechnology workplaces.

In the short term, companies should supplement good workplace hygiene practices with nanospecific techniques, where applicable. Useful initiatives include the ORC Worldwide Nanotechnology Consensus Workplace Safety Guidelines, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology, and the International Council on Nanotechnology Review of Safety Practices in the Nanotechnology Industry. These provide information that help companies work as safely as possible with engineered nanomaterials, though much work remains.

A "control banding" approach could form a stopgap until more data are available. This may involve selecting an appropriate "impact index" based on a nanomaterial's particle size, shape, surface area, activity, bulk-sized hazard, as well as an "exposure index" representing the amount of material used and its "dustiness." While all of this is still in the conceptual stage, engineered nanomaterials in the workplace today pose an immediate challenge to the way institutions manage occupational safety and health. So far, we see numerous red flags indicating some engineered nanomaterials might present a new or un-usual health hazard.

For example, recent animal studies suggest that deposited, discrete nanometer-diameter particles are capable of being transported from the nasal region of the respiratory tract to the brain, circumventing the blood-brain barrier. It remains unclear if this phenomenon is significant in humans, however. But truly safe nanotechnologies will not become a reality unless these and other uncertainties are addressed systematically through adequate strategic research.

Andrew Maynard is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of aerosol characterization and the implications of nanotechnology to human health and the environment. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars maintains a neutral forum for free, open, and informed dialogue. It is a nonpartisan institution, supported by public and private funds, engaged in the study of national and international affairs.

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